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The Amazing Effect of Good Habits on Decreasing Stress

Stephen Guise has written multiple posts on this blog about his “mini habits” concept. Today he talks about interconnection of good habits and how they can help reduce stress.  To learn more, check out this book: Mini Habits: Smaller Habits. Bigger Results and his advanced course Mini Habit Mastery, which is offered at 50% off to the readers of this blog.  

Good habits make you happier, healthier, and chemically work to decrease stress levels.

There’s another way that good habits reduce stress, however, and it’s not commonly known.

The Interesting Relationship Between Stress And Habits

Did you know that when we are stressed out, we are more likely to perform habitual behaviors? Why do you think that is?

In researching for the Mini Habit Mastery course I’m creating, I found a study on habits and emotions. In this study, researchers found that the more nonhabitual behaviors a person was doing (also known as multi-tasking), the more stressed out they were. Picture an office worker on the phone, answering emails, and talking to a coworker about another project. Sounds stressful, no?

Habits are the opposite of that.

Have you ever known a person of remarkable routine? The person that comes to mind for me is actually fictional, though I’m sure there are real people like him. In the classic book, Around The World In 80 Days, author Jules Verne tells us about the eccentric Phineas Fogg, a man of perfection and impeccable routine. The one character trait of Fogg that wowed me throughout the book is his extraordinary calm, even in the most dire of circumstances. And I think the reason for that is because he is a man of habit, down to the way he thinks about and solves problems.

Research says that a little less than half of our behavior is habitual, but Phineas Fogg seemed to be more like 90%!

What percentage of your total behavior is habitual?

Is Work Life Or Home Life More Stressful? The Answer Is Shocking

Why is work more stressful than home life? It turns out, it isn’t. Media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal here, are reporting about a to-be-published study by Penn State researchers, which measured cortisol levels in people while at work and at home. People of all types—married, single, male, and female—had lower cortisol levels at work compared to home, “significantly and consistently.”

Work can be very stressful, of course, which is why I think this data doesn’t necessarily say that work is not a stressful aspect of life in general. It’s notorious for being the key source of stress in many people’s lives! Perhaps, then, this data shows the power of routine in lessening our cognitive load and stress response. Even with the stressful demands of work, cortisol levels are lower because we’re on autopilot.

According to research on our emotional response to habits vs. nonhabits, the more (good) habits you have in your life, the more stable you’ll be emotionally; the less stress you’ll have. Think about how a 9-to-5 job provides a person with structure. They don’t always enjoy the confining nature of having to be there, but they often do enjoy the structure it brings to their life. Even if everything else goes crazy, having a stable job and routine can be comforting. Good habits do the same thing for our energy: they provide a sustainable structure that—even if we have an off day—ensure we continue to make progress and take care of ourselves.

This also shows why bad habits are so damaging. It’s like building your life’s foundation with rotten wood. Instead of the general variability in life that will bring you fortune and misfortune, bad habits are guaranteed doses of misfortune (usually daily).

Is “Stressful Habit” An Oxymoron?

The most stressful habits are certainly bad habits. But the stress response doesn’t happen during the habit, it happens afterwards. It’s a conscious reflection on your subconscious action. When drug addicts take drugs, they enjoy it. It’s afterwards (even immediately afterwards) that they might regret it. The stress isn’t from the habit, but from your reaction to the habit.

We know habits are the least stressful behaviors because of their familiarity and our low resistance to them. It’s why we automatically prefer them when we’re stressed out. Habits are the brain’s way of cooling off—they require the least amount of cognitive energy. And it all fits together:

Less emotion means less stress, which means less energy expenditure, which means habits are a great way to “actively relax” the mind. 

A strategy I find brilliant is to purposefully increase your life’s total percentage of habitual behavior. Some people have done it, and their entire day is highly structured. These are often successful people (if we’re talking about good habits here) because they’ve programmed their brains to do the work and tasks that bring them success.

I’m not going to say I’m successful according to the world. But I have succeeded in my own eyes, because I make enough money doing what I love to support my simple lifestyle. I’m more successful than I ever have been in the past—financially, productively, healthwise, and in developing skills—because I have instilled daily good habits. I owe a lot to my good habits.

In addition to guest posts like this one, I write an article every Monday for Deep Existence (my blog). What many people wouldn’t guess is that even the 4,000 word, detailed articles I write aren’t difficult for me to write. They are challenging on some level and I work hard to make them useful, but it’s easier for me to write a 4,000 word article today than it was for me to write a 1,000 word article even one year ago. Back then, I didn’t have a writing habit, and that made it tough.

When Sunday evening comes around, I don’t have to worry about scrambling to get a post together because I’ll have five or six nearly-completed posts waiting for me, and I can choose which one to finish and polish up. My drafts folder has more than 100 posts in it.

This is so strange when I look back, because I distinctly remember stressing out about “needing to post to the blog because I haven’t posted in 3 weeks.” Now? Ha! I’ve had to restrain myself to not post more than once a week. I’m 5x more productive with 5x less stress (those numbers are not inflated). This is the magic of habits.

To Decrease Stress, Add More Healthy Habits

Studies and research clearly show that habits offer decreased stress. Also lower stress levels is a keystone habit that can actually help you to succeed with other habits.  It is all circular.

What I’m proposing is that we consider how much of our behavior is habitual, and if we can purposefully increase that percentage in order to decrease our overall stress levels.

Good habits can reduce stress by their numerous merits (exercise directly reduces stress, for example). In addition to that, adding a single good habit increases the total percentage of your behavior that is effortless and therefore not stressful. In a sense, I’m suggesting that we become more like Phineas Fogg, who is seen as eccentric because he’s so habit-driven.

What is one area of your life that you could habitualize in order to decrease your stress and preserve your mental energy? Think about something that stresses you out, and see if there’s a trigger and routine you could set up to take that load off of your mind. For example:

If you’re stressed about forgetting work assignments, you can set up a habit of instantly documenting new work tasks as they come in. Save them in a place that you habitually check every day, and you won’t ever have to worry about it. This adds power to the already-powerful concept of writing things down. When you make a non-habitual behavior into a habitual one, you’ve essentially delegated the task to your subconscious brain (and it’s built to repeat processes!). That’s smart living.

I recommend writing down the process of what you intend to habitualize.

  1. Boss wants report on Kapersky files in 2 days.
  2. Open calendar app, and put in deadline.
  3. Set up 4 reminders before deadline: 30 minutes prior, 2 hours prior, 12 hours prior, and 24 hours prior.

If you habitually did this for all of your work tasks, not only would you get lightning fast at doing it, but you’d have no worries about forgetting about it, as your reminders would automatically “ping” you at key points. It would be one less activity to stress out about. And it’s a prime example of a good habit decreasing your stress on multiple levels.

So I’ll ask you again: what is one area of your life that you could habitualize in order to decrease your stress and preserve your mental energy? Think about a current stressful area: that’s probably the area you’ll want to address first.

Written without stress by Stephen Guise. If you want to hear more from me, you can sign up at Deep Existence to get smart life tips every Tuesday morning. Upon sign up, you’ll receive some gifts: my 40-pack “focus wallpaper” set, my stress management book, and over 30 subscriber-exclusive articles. And if it’s good habits you’re after, check out Mini Habits on Amazon and the advanced course Mini Habit Mastery. Good habits can even be a smart long-term play against bad habits. Acting like beneficial weeds, they can “crowd out” some (though not all) bad habits.

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